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Pilot program has robotic dogs, cats helping local seniors with companionship

A pilot project created by the Town of Canmore’s Family and Community Support Services has provided 24 robotic animals as pets to local seniors to help with social isolation.

CANMORE – For the cost of a few bags of dog food or the price of a regular check-up for a pet at the veterinarian, some local seniors are getting their own unique pets.

In a pilot project meant to help with social isolation, the Town of Canmore’s Family and Community Support Services (FCSS) have provided 24 robotic animals as pets to local seniors.

“We’ve been concerned for the isolated seniors in the community. They may have feelings of stress, loneliness and anxiety. … the opportunities for interaction can be very slim during the lockdown,” said Mavis Sautner, a program coordinator with FCSS.

The necessity of physical distancing and staying at home has played a role in curtailing the spread of COVID-19, but some have felt a growing sense of isolation – particularly for seniors.

Sautner said they were looking to offer support and companionship for local seniors. Their research found that “pets and elders are a great combination,” with dogs and cats often found in seniors homes in pre-COVID times.

“We thought it would be a reasonable way to provide some of the relief for people who are suffering from loneliness, stress and anxiety in our community," Sautner said. 

The first round of the program saw 24 robot cats and dogs delivered to people in Canmore in November and December. They largely went to residents of the Bow Valley Senior Citizens Lodge and Golden Eagle View long-term care, but also to some private residences in the community.

Roughly two-thirds were dogs, while the remaining third were cats.

Sautner noted they had immediate feedback of seniors feeling more connected and for some who were closing themselves off to others, they were interacting with people once again.

Funding for the first robot animals came from the Canmore social recovery COVID relief fund.

Sautner said they’ve also applied for a grant with the Banff Canmore Community Foundation to hopefully reach more residents in the Bow Valley.

According to the Ageless Innovation website – the designer of the pets – the Joy for All product was created in 2015 with the purpose of being owned by older adults.

The animals are designed to help seniors who may be feeling isolated by providing a companion, but without the regular needs such as feeding, walking and picking up after that come with a pet.

Though many robotics can be costly, the cats and dogs are affordable. The Joy for All website lists the companion pet cats at $109.99 and $129.99 – both prices are American currency – for the dog version. They are battery powered, and built-in sensors allow them to respond to both motion and touch.

The positive benefits animals have on people’s mental health have long been noted.

During the 2017-18 fiscal year, Alberta Health Services reported animals made roughly 4,000 visits to people over 85 for about 948,000 hours.

While separate from the real thing, Sautner said the early results have been overwhelmingly positive.

“We’ve had really great feedback from families and caregivers," she said. “If we wake up happy and are excited for something, it sets a better tone for your day.”

Greg Colgan

About the Author: Greg Colgan

Greg is the assistant editor with the Outlook.
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